This is a fascinating documentary that takes a fresh look at the holocaust. In the mid to late nineteen thirties, Jews were allowed to leave Germany, provided that they could get a country to take them in. Therein lay the rub. Many Jews were willing to leave Germany at the time but could find no country that would open its doors to them. Then, some of them discovered that China was an option. It seemed that Shanghai would accept Jewish refugees, and eventually about twenty thousand desperate refugees decided that going to Shanghai would be a more viable option to staying in Germany and German occupied lands, where life for the Jewish population was becoming a slow descent into hell.
Traveling by ocean liner, the refugees would disembark in Shanghai, where part of the city was segregated into an international settlement, filled with western foreigners. By the time that the Jewish refugees began arriving, the Japanese occupied that part of Shanghai that included the international settlement, although the Japanese had a hands off policy with respect to the international settlement. So, even though Japan was one of the Axis powers, which included Germany, the Jewish refugees were allowed to settle in Shanghai without incident. Moreover, the Japanese, having criticized the treatment of Asians by Germans, were now constrained to treat the Jewish refugees well in order to be consistent.
In fact, there were already two distinct Jewish groups ensconced and well established in Shanghai, the Baghdadi Jews, who were business people and the wealthier of these two groups, and the Russian Jews. Each had their own communities in the international settlement. As the European Jews began pouring into Shanghai, the Baghdadi, who were Sephardic Jews, helped them, providing financial assistance and support. The Jewish refugees came from Germany, Poland, and Lithuania.
These refugees would band together and form a thriving community with cafes, schools, newspapers, theatres, and sport and social clubs, creating a bustling community with a vibrant cultural life. Still, they were now a poor people living in difficult conditions, as Shanghai was a port city that was teeming with people, many of whom were living in squalid conditions, with poor sanitation and rampant disease. Still, the Jewish refugees felt safe living among the Chinese people with their Japanese captors, never experiencing anti-Semitism from their Asian neighbors. No matter how bad it got in Shanghai, where living conditions were deplorable, it was far worse in Europe for those Jews who remained behind.
Then, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the Americans entered the war, the Japanese went into the International settlement and interned the Americans and British, who were pronounced to be enemy aliens. This included the Baghdadi Jews, as they carried British passports. This brought great hardship upon the Jewish refugees, who had been dependent upon the largesse of the Baghdadi Jews for their survival. The responsibility of the Jewish refugees now fell upon the Russian Jewish community.
In 1943, the Japanese, succumbing to pressure from their German allies, issued a proclamation that all stateless refugees, who came to Shanghai after 1937, were to be resettled in a segregated area and have curfews. This created, in effect, a ghetto of Jews, as they had previously lived side by side with the Chinese. It was not, however, anything like the European ghettos of Jews that the Germans had constructed, as there were no walls separating them from the community at large.
The filmmakers of this documentary tell the little known story of the Jewish settlements in Shanghai through the moving reminiscences of a number of survivors, archival footage, still photographs, and letters written at the time. The filmmakers also obtained input from historians in order to ground the story in the historical context out of which it arose, creating a historical backdrop for the events and situations described by the survivors. They then traveled to Shanghai with two of the survivors to revisit the city and the ghetto where these survivors had spent so many of their early years and to film the places where they had lived. Remarkably, the buildings still existed, virtually unchanged, very much as they had been so many years ago when Jewish refugees had occupied them.
Winner of the Santa Barbara Film Festival Audience Choice Award, this is a fascinating documentary. It is one that will keep the viewer riveted to the screen. Those who enjoy historical documentaries, as well as those with an interest in the holocaust and World War II, will very much like this well-made documentary, which is narrated by Academy Award winner, Martin Landau.